January 2012 - BBC Four’s “The Story of Musicals” is a three part documentary into the world of the West End. Covering the "rise of the British musical", it takes us from the poor state of musical theatre in the UK after World War 2 right up to the successes of the present day. Narrated by Imelda Staunton and backed up by archive footage, the show features contributions from many big names, including performers such as Sheila Hancock, Elaine Paige and Michael Ball, plus creative team members like Cameron Mackintosh, Tim Rice and Charles Hart. The first episode starts with the arrival of US smash Oklahoma, highlighting the differences between an inventive Broadway and a London theatre scene still stuck in pre-war nostalgia. It covers British shows such as The Boy Friend, Oliver! and Half a Sixpence up to the famous partnership of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and the emergence of the concept album in musical theatre. Interviews are very insightful on shows that have perhaps received less attention than later successes, from the working methods of Lionel Bart, the writer of great British musicals, who could not read music, to James Rado, one of the creators of Hair, admitting that he took influence from Joan Littlewood’s Oh What a Lovely War in creating the show that coupled a powerful anti-war message with clever and experimental theatrical techniques. Episode two focuses on the British megamusicals of the 1980s, with the expected big hits of Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Starlight Express. Some of these shows ran for such a long time, and, in a few cases, are still running now, that it is easy to forget just how creative and important they were. We hear much of designers and choreographers having to deal with roller-skating actors, dancing cats and putting outer space on a London stage to make bold visual theatre that was accessible to the new West End audience of tourists from all over the globe. In between these, it was nice that the rather heart-warming tale of Blood Brothers was included, with its humble origins as a play for schools and Willy Russell’s reluctance to bring the popular touring show back to London contrasted with its position nowadays as the third longest running show in the West End. The third episode takes us from the celebrity casting of Aspects of Love through to the present day, covering topics such as a perceived backlash against UK transfers to Broadway, celebrity casting and jukebox musicals. It highlighted controversies such as the protested casting of Jonathan Pryce in the Broadway transfer of Miss Saigon and the huge public backlash against Jerry Springer: The Opera. While both of these resulted in a lot of attention for their respective productions, much of this episode focused on the ways producers have been getting new audiences interested in musical theatre, from casting via reality television to adapting big name movies. While The Story of Musicals acts as a great reminder that aficionados of British theatre have much of which to be proud, it does somewhat overemphasize the claim that “without the British, there would be no Broadway”. Some anecdotes make the fascinating case of just how things have changed over the years, from Sandy Wilson’s tale of being thrown out of the theatre in New York, literally, so huge changes could be made to The Boy Friend, to Lloyd Webber megamusicals being replicated exactly around the world. All three 1 hour episodes are included on 1 disc.